Gingrich’s immigration crucible

November 24, 2011

WHAT A DIFFERENCE 11 weeks make. In September, the first time the Republican presidential pack got into a scrape over immigration, no one paid much attention when Newt Gingrich urged a “much more humane” alternative to dealing with illegal immigrants than mass deportation. And no wonder: At the time, he was stuck at about 5 percent in the polls. Now that Mr. Gingrich is leading — for the time being — he is under fierce attack within the GOP for reprising the same common-sense message.

In the candidates’ debate on foreign policy Tuesday night, Mr. Gingrich, former House speaker, repeated what he has said frequently: that undocumented immigrants who have spent years in the United States, paid taxes and formed ties should be granted some sort of legal status. Mr. Gingrich insisted his policy would not amount to amnesty — a word that unhinges Republicans — since it would not apply to recent arrivals and would stop short of granting citizenship.

His proposal is based on the unremarkable observation that it is lunacy to imagine that 11 million people can be thrown out of the country or will simply be blown across the border by gales of truculence. But what should be a social and economic truism is anathema in the GOP, whose hostility to the presence of low-wage, Spanish-speaking workers in jobs Americans don’t want has alienated millions of Hispanic voters.

In an earlier debate, Texas Gov. Rick Perry brought the party’s wrath upon his head for rightly suggesting that it is heartless to deny opportunities to undocumented youngsters who grew up and were educated in this country. Mr. Gingrich, to his credit, said very much the same thing, formulating his argument in what he clearly hopes are less incendiary terms.

“I don’t see how the party that says it’s the party of the family is going to adopt an immigration policy which destroys families that have been here a quarter of a century,” he said.

Rep. Michele Bachmann of Minnesota and former Massachusetts governor Mitt Romney attacked Mr. Gingrich for advocating amnesty, which they said would attract more illegal immigrants, and Mr. Perry chimed in by saying the priority should be to secure the border.

In fact, amnesty isn’t the magnet; jobs are. Some 8 million undocumented workers — about 5 percent of the U.S. labor force — are here largely because American workers do not want low-wage, dirty and backbreaking jobs, particularly in heavily agricultural states such as California and Texas. And despite Mr. Perry’s suggestion that the Southwest border is dangerous and out of control, the fact is that it is less porous — as measured by plummeting numbers of apprehensions — than it has been in 40 years, and crime in border cities has nose-dived.

Republicans love talking about the border — no matter how quiet it gets — as a way of avoiding the question that flummoxes them: what to do with the millions of illegal immigrants who have already crossed. Mr. Perry was punished for suggesting they should be treated like human beings. Now the question of illegal immigration may be Mr. Gingrich’s crucible, too.

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